Real time reviews
BY DAWNE SHAND · ILLUSTRATION BY RAFAEL LOPEZ
Marc Mergen knows how to manage complex, thorny systems, applications and products implementations. As a senior project manager for Plaut Consulting based in New Orleans, La., USA, Mergen claims he's never tacked on a review meeting at the end of a project. Mergen is an experienced manager, but like most, he's not a fan of the exhorted “end-of-project review,” infamously called the post-mortem.
Most managers can list why these end-of-project reviews are a bane. First, they claim, gathering the team again for one more meeting is almost impossible; everyone has moved on to the next initiative. Second, reviews are too often an exercise in blame. Third, “no one reads the reports from these events.” The documents cannot be entirely truthful because no one would sign off on a document admitting many mistakes. But the most crippling criticism is that the reviews come too late.
While reviews sometimes go down like a spoonful of medicine, innovative managers can make them more palatable. By breathing new life into post-mortems, project managers give rise to teams that analyze out-comes and think ahead from day one.
■ How the analysis behind end-of-project reviews are being applied throughout the course of a project
■ How business impact measures must be among the milestones checked
■ Why the environment of the project review must be based on trust and credibility.
Early Warning Systems
Senior executives began advocating post-mortems during the 1990s, as their companies implemented knowledge management practices to leverage a team's learning across the organization. Generally, a dedicated knowledge manager listened to a team's final report and documented what was discovered. Alternatively, a formal authority insisted that managers document their own lessons learned. Both methods fattened document repositories, but unnerved project leaders.
Because a post-mortem “can't cure the patient,” a team must review as it works, not after it disperses, to support truly great results, according to Francis Hartman, professor of project management specialization at the University of Calgary, Canada. Hartman is developing techniques to provide project managers with an early warning toolkit that exposes impending problems in time to find solutions. Much like a doctor would routinely check vital signs, managers should check a team's pulse early and often, Hartman says.
Teams have an intuitive sense of what can lead to a project's failure. Hartman recommends that managers poll their team at the beginning of a project and determine the greatest obstacles to success. A team might identify communication or speed of decision-making. By asking the team, managers can work to mitigate the issues and thereby decrease risks.
As the project unfurls, Hartman recommends that managers take a weekly poll—a simple rating from one to 10—on component tasks. The results, once incorporated into a chart, indicate trends in performance that can and should be used at progress review meetings.
“You might discover that people either know of problems but aren't talking about them, or that problems are being escalated unnecessarily,” says Hartman.
Hartman also prescribes a review of behaviors that cause heartburn. Managers should ask the three main project constituents—sponsors, consultants and contractors—what do the other two groups do that upsets you? And how do you upset them? Voicing the problems allows teams to establish common ground, and leaders can use this list to identify issues to monitor.
Jennifer Rodriguez, director of Roundtable Consulting Ltd., Harpenden, U.K., agrees. As an order of business, she discloses in one-on-one meetings the work behaviors that she knows sometimes annoy other people. As a result, the whole team engages in a similar frank discussion. “This is actually very hard to do well,” Rodriguez adds, “but on one project, not setting these ground rules upfront nearly scuppered the whole thing!” More than monitoring, techniques such as these incorporate the analysis of review into how the team really functions.
Measures That Matter
Periodic reviews shouldn't be separate from the work; they are part and parcel of the project and should be incorporated into the project plan from the start, according to Ken Hanley, senior manager with KPMG Consulting in Calgary, Canada. “If you're doing it right, the project review should be a check-point, the natural byproduct of effective execution,” says Hanley
Effective project execution, for Hanley, includes watching project costs and duration. But more importantly, it means asking tough questions about performance. Managers need hard measures of the ultimate required business impact, such as a 40 percent headcount reduction or a 10-month improvement in time to launch new products, Hanley says.
To give good, constructive criticism duringht project reviews, managers must focus discussions on tangible project milestones, not team members' “mistakes,” according to Barbara Kivowitz, who managed a “post-mortem” review for Lotus Software in the early 1990s. The company used this facilitated project review method extensively to keep different software-release teams in sync.
A facilitator had the team construct a wall-sized timeline of some projects from start to ship date. In turn, team members then marked their entry into the project on the wall map. During the discussion, the facilitator had the team collectively define what the major milestones were. The map then became the focal point of a discussion on what was productive and what had broken down.
The team for release two also sometimes was invited to this meeting to probe the first team for suggestions on how to run its own project. The conversation that ensued “was a wonderful amalgam of possibilities, innovations and pitfalls,” says Kivowitz, now vice president of Asuret, Brookline, Mass., USA. Some of the conversation was technical, some political but rarely personal, she says. “Reviews shouldn't be about singling out individuals but actual events and behaviors that contributed to success.”
Even if performance can't be gauged until a project is complete, managers should evaluate whether progressive results are consistent with where the organization wants to go or not. Hanley says managers must develop interim measures at checkpoints during the project, not just at its end. If handled correctly, reviews enable a team to determine that its performance aligns with the company's expectations for the project.
Checklists and measures supplement a review meeting, which still must be conducted if the team is going to learn. “Even when senior management pressures for reviews, it doesn't mean the team will identify problems,” says Hans Thamhain, PMP, professor of management at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., USA. “Reviews are done poorly, plans lack milestones, people come unprepared.”
Regard review meetings as opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate a team's progress—and to deal with mistakes, says Thamhain. Create a fail-safe environment, “where threatening problems can be broached, and managers can do something,” he says.
Stephen Parker, director of Per4m, a consultancy based in Bedford, U.K., counseled a large European bank's team that was charged with introducing the Euro currency. Nine months into this major project, the team and its sponsors panicked over the lack of progress. Blame was cast widely
“Prior, the team coordination had been very focused on the mechanics of the project,” says Parker. “There had been very little at team coordination or communication.” The 45 team members worked in relative isolation. Parker coached business sponsors on how to extract better information on the inter-personal variables of the team's progress.
Once the team shrunk to a more manageable 18, which committed to a timeline and milestones, reviews could take place in a more positive and results-oriented environment. The introduction of regular team reviews—progress against milestones—was crucial to “fixing” the team, says Parker. At one meeting, a team member confessed that he was struggling with the workload that week; others volunteered to help.
“When we noticed this event, we asked if the team shouldn't conduct this informal 360-degree review each week,” says Parker. The event led the team to institute the weekly practice of asking themselves three questions: What went well this week, what didn't go well, and where can I be of any assistance?
The informal peer-review process, one of many changes to the overall project management process, had an interesting effect. Whereas the project sponsors previously engaged in weekly status meetings as part of damage control, they were so encouraged by the team's progress that they decreased the number of oversight meetings by half. The team's progress restored its credibility and reduced the need for time-consuming hand-holding by management.
Periodic review meetings, such as the bank's peer review system, openly acknowledge a project's risks and inform both management and project staff. Effective reviews require a degree of trust between team members. Without striving to enhance trust and credibility in a team, project managers may find their reviews are just another stale and unproductive meeting.
By measuring and monitoring typical team trouble spots on an informal but ongoing basis, managers can make reviews less onerous and more strategic. PM
Dawne Shand is a Newburyport, Mass., USA-based publishing consultant and freelance writer. She covers emerging business and technology trends for Computerworld, Industry Standard and Knowledge Management Magazine.
PM NETWORK | DECEMBER 2002 | www.pmi.org